Tuesday 14 August 2018

Con Houlihan: It's only a matter of time . . .

From sticks in the ground to dogs wagging their tails, telling the time was never straightforward -- especially when there were tricksters about

If we are to believe all we hear about the ancient Chinese, they had invented everything worthwhile by 3,000BC -- probably even a mobile phone, though, of course, they called it the portable phone, because it cannot move on its own. We are told that they invented the first clock. It was a water clock.

It is not certain who invented the clock as we know it today -- the pendulum clock and the spring clock -- but you can be sure that there was so much intelligence and energy in the Middle East, Egypt, Greece and Rome that between them they invented very reliable timepieces.

The sundial was very fashionable in Rome and was often seen in the gardens of big houses long, long afterwards, especially in Victorian England. These sundials often carried a Latin one-liner: "Non numero horas nisi serenas." This means, more or less: "I do not count the hours unless they are happy."

In Britain and in Ireland, there was no common time until the coming of the railways. Every town and city, believe it or not, had its own time. How was this managed? More than likely, local councils or corporations decided, and the time was kept on a town clock in a prominent place. That is why so many towns and cities have clock towers. When the trains came, time had to be verified.

Those of us who grew up during the Second World War encountered time in a new element -- there was old time and new time. New time came in because the British government wished people to go to work an hour earlier in the morning and to come home in the evening with more time for their gardens. The slogan was "Dig for Victory".

Later in the Second World War, there was double summer time. We adopted single summer time in Ireland, but not as far as I remember double summer time. Single summer time could cause confusion, especially about games. Thus you might see a page of white paper pinned on a tree saying "Cordal v Currow at 15:30" and in brackets you might see OT. That was fair enough. Then you might see a poster with ST in brackets and some people who weren't too well up might come to a game an hour late.

Early in the last century, some bookmakers' clocks had two long hands: one showed the time in London and the other showed the time in Ireland, just in case a race finished in England at three o'clock and some clerk in the office might forget that we were a half an hour behind.

One time, when I was only a few days in London and on my way to Mass one morning, a local woman stopped me and said: "What time is it?" And I replied: "It's nearly seven o'clock old time." The woman gave me a strange glance.

Then there was a morning when I was in the bog with my father, and about eight o'clock I decided to make our tea. And he said: "Eight o'clock is new time. That is only seven o'clock God's time. Take off half an hour for our distance from London and it's only half past six. We're mad." And, of course, we were.

You need never ask about the time in London: Big Ben is the world's finest landmark. It makes the tallest tower in New York look like an upstart. And even the Post Office Tower in London cannot compare.

In my youth in Kerry, good clocks were rare. Most people had spring clocks and unless they were wound regularly and carefully, they didn't keep good time. Rural electrification came about 1960 and then people had electric clocks. They were great until there was a power cut. Many people went to the bog without any timepiece because wrist watches came with a younger generation. And how did they know the time? Usually they planted a long stick in the ground and took the time from its shadow. It was a primitive system.

There was a better way: if you had dogs with you, they knew the time after the first day. On the second day and afterwards, they would tell it to you. About 11.50, they would come back from their roving and start wagging their tails. It was time for lunch. At about 14.50, they would tell you it was time for tea, and about 17.50, they would start walking inland and turning back wagging their tails. It was time to go home.

Most families had only one clock and sometimes it was a very alarming clock. The boss of the house might be going to work early and he would set the alarm for seven, but some playboy in the family might set it for six. This could cause domestic turmoil.

Then I knew a little 15-year-old boy, who was due in the bog at seven o'clock to meet up with a team of men. He set the clock for six, but one of his brothers set it for five and the poor child was in the bog at six o'clock with only the hares for comrades. Such tricks were quite common long ago.

There was a neighbour of mine who was a famous wit. Many stories were told about him. Some are true. Others are makey-ups. One story, however, is so true, that it could happen only with him. One day at a fair in our town, he bought a very handsome clock and the following morning, before he set out for the bog, he got the time from a neighbour and so set his clock. He showed it proudly to his fellow workers and they used it for their lunch and for their tea. Alas, in the early afternoon, he went to see what time it was. His clock had stopped. He didn't know that it had to be wound and so he opened it up. A fly had got into the works and had paid with his life. He said: "No wonder it stopped. The engine driver is dead."

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